Potted Potter

True story: I’ve never read a Harry Potter book, nor seen any of the eight films from the wildly popular series. I’ll admit that in the Aughts, my resistance was that of a snotty, 20-something faux rebel. I wanted no part of common literature. I had two English degrees!

With time and the increasingly massive success of the pop cultural juggernaut, I started to feel a little foolish. Multiple critical exclamations over the quality of J.K. Rowling’s prose reinforced that I was probably missing something special. But at a certain point, the train had left and I figured it was too late to get onboard. One thing I do know about the Harry Potter series is that the sum total of pages is 4,224. And it takes 19 hours to watch the movies. That’s a serious investment.

So for many reasons I relished the opportunity to see “Potted Potter: The Unauthorized Potter Experience – A Parody by Dan and Jeff.” The production’s astute marketing position, per press materials, is a “condensing or ‘potting,’ of all seven Harry Potter books into 70 madcap minutes.” A broad, cheeky overview of a time-consuming leviathan. Who could resist that proposition?

I attended press night with a loved one who is my Potter opposite — a devoted fan. I figured if I got stuck on a reference, her presence would be handy indeed. It turns out I needn’t have been concerned. One of the greatest assets of the family-oriented show — beyond the excellence of the two performers — is its ability to appeal to all audiences. Rapid dialogue, song, dance, comedy, audience engagement, props and consumable brevity: quite literally, something for everyone.

BBC Television hosts Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner, who created “Potted Potter,” do a great job of involving everyone, not only in the story, but in themselves. And just as Rowling adroitly accomplished, the performers interest the adults while remembering the most excited lovers of magic: children.

The tone is set before the show starts when Clarkson walks through the audience, thanking families for attending. As he does, the tall man lowers himself to a kid’s level — in both stature and tone — and welcomes them into the Potter world. Though not part of the script, I enjoyed the delight of the little ones, giddy with the attention, every bit as much as the actual performance.

If you can’t have fun during “Potted Potter,” you’re just a Muggle. There’s a live Quidditch game in the middle of the production which involves good old-fashioned team rivalry, cute kids in wizard hats and Super Soakers. It’s been an extra cynical and painful few news weeks in Chicago. But I dare one to remain smile-immune in the face of so much merriment. It’s good natured and inviting.

Clarkson and Turner give so much of themselves, I’m sure they need a Gatorade and a long nap after the curtain drops. For 70 non-stop minutes they transition between many of the Potter world’s 772 characters. They whiz through the important plot points of seven novels, and they do it with little more than a slew of props and advanced ad-lib and physical comedy skills. The duo displays an endearing love for Potter and a completely admirable respect for children as audience members worthy of a quality experience. With both material and consumer, they get it.

“Potted Potter” is a show for which you want to root, because it’s an all-around joyful experience. It’s icing on the cake that the massive appeal of the institution it lovingly lampoons ensures success. Highly recommended for Potter novices and experts alike, crowds of all ages, and frankly humanity.

“Potted Potter” runs through Jan. 3, 2016 at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E Chestnut, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 800-775-2000 or visit the Broadway In Chicago website.


Work/Life Balance (June 21, 2011)

I have been throwing around this terminology and thinking about this dynamic in my life quite a bit in recent days. I have let the spectrum get out of whack. With the physical and emotional turmoil I have been experiencing this year, time was I was very grateful to have my work to occupy my hours. That’s still true to a large degree. I am challenged, and experiencing growth as a person and as a professional in my day job as well as the diverse freelance projects I have undertaken.

As a working writer, I am never able to shake this fear, and I imagine artists, dancers, actors and other creative types can relate. The fear is that if I say “no” to a particular job, I may be daring karma to turn against me. I will never be offered a gig again. The freelance world is very feast or famine by nature and all I need is to conjure memories of those 4-6 weeks stretches where I can boast nary a byline. The periodic blackouts are scary enough that when multiple editors approach with projects, I am almost too grateful to consider whether or not I can deliver in a healthy manner.

Very recently I have resumed my post as theater critic in the Chicago market. The website for which I submit reviews had dropped Chi-town as an outpost in April of last year, but there’s just too much good stuff onstage in the Windy City for any arts and entertainment outlet worth its salt to ignore. So I’m back on, in a big way. I have four shows to cover between last weekend and July 19. Since it’s summer, ‘tis the season for urban agriculture stories, one of my bread and butter journalist beats. I sit on the board of a women’s press collective and edit the group’s quarterly newsletter, so that has taken a lot of my time and labor. I could continue to delineate specific commitments but you get the idea.

I am living my dream. I never asked for the riches and fame of a J.K. Rowling or Stephen King, and as I am neither a novelist nor seek media attention, I don’t think there was much risk of that happening anyway. I long to be Gail Collins of the New York Times when I grow up, but that may never occur. Honestly, I can live with that. My ambition was to be a writer. That’s all. I never attached any imaginary barometers for success to my goal. Could I write full time and pay my bills? Yes? Cool.

But I am having some trouble leaving enough space in my new world for myself. I am not allowing the time required for rest, strategic planning, friends and family. In my quest to keep myself honestly occupied, this was never my intention. I have a couple of aunts in Wisconsin who are going to be really disappointed in me this weekend. They understand my deadlines, but I used to complain vociferously when my estranged consultant husband would continually prioritize work over family. I have unwittingly become that of which I always disapproved.

I know a lot of smart people out there in the writer’s community. How do you folks achieve and maintain a work/life balance? How do you do it all without depleting yourself or failing the most important people in your life?